How is space gendered?
A central question for feminists involved in the built environment in the 1970s and ’80s was trying to unravel how we could analyse the gendering of space, across a multitude of complexities and intangibles. The word sexism had not yet been invented, and the commonsense assumption within architecture was that built space was neutral and objective, with the professional’s job merely to apply their unbiased expertise.
What Betty Friedan in the US called ‘the problem that has no name’; and Sheila Rowbotham in the UK described as ‘lumber(ing) around ungainly-like in borrowed concepts which did not fit the shape we feel ourselves to be‘ was already being opened up for exploration by second wave feminism. Geographers and historians seemed much further ahead than architecture – in the Matrix book group we avidly read work from the States by Dolores Hayden, Gwendolyn Wright, Doris Cole, Gerda R. Wekerle and Susana Torre, and from the UK by Leonora Davidoff and Catherine Hall; then later Doreen Massey, Linda McDowell and Gill Valentine. Later again, Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner and Iain Borden edited some of these seminal texts together in Gender, Space Architecture: an interdisciplinary introduction (Routledge 2000).
I still hold to the framing that the Matrix book group put forward in our 1984 introduction (pp 9-10):
Buildings do not control our lives. They reflect the dominant values in our society, political and architectural views, people’s demands and the constraints of finance, but we can live in them in different ways from those originally intended. Buildings only affect us insomuch as they contain ideas about women, about our ‘proper place’, about what is private and what is public activity, about which things should be kept separate and which put together. But this does not determine how we live. […]
As feminist architects and designers we want to avoid the architectural determinism that sees building-users as puppets, capable of being manipulated according to the architect’s idea of desired behaviour. The arrangement of space in and between buildings is a reflection of accepted views which may have a greater or lesser effect on the occupants -or which may have unintended effects on social life in general. We have tried to avoid assuming that our experiences and views are universal. Even though we hope to speak of all women’s experience, we are directly limited by our own history. All of us have come through higher education, mostly with a training in architecture, and thus fit into the conventional definition of the white, middle class […] we believe that our experience is a common one for women.
Now, though, I speak about ‘social, spatial and material practices’ rather than ‘buildings’ so as to better draw out the dynamic, nuanced and deeply relational intersections between built space and its differential occupation. I still explore our everyday norms and routines, unpicking how these value particular kinds of bodies and minds rather than others; and to better understand how built environment education and practice can work to both perpetuate and to challenge such norms. I notice that the focus of our references in the 1980s was the plight of the middle class white suburban housewife, challenging our own normative role models, but also often excluding or making marginal working class, and black and ethnic minority women’s experiences and concerns.
Part of this shift is because of the way both social relations, and architectural approaches to the design of space have changed. When I began working with Matrix on research projects at the end of the 1970s, it was still possible to literally see gender roles mapped onto physical space as patterns of separation (women at home in the suburbs/men at work in the city). It was even easier to look back to 19th century Victorian England and see how these attempts to articulate gender difference through the design and control of material space had begun, as a deliberate design philosophy.
Of course, by the 1980s, this was already an oversimplified picture; not only emphasizing the location of the white, middle-class suburban housewife and often leaving other groups invisible; but also not taking into account the changing nature of households away from the nuclear family, as well as the large scale movement of young middle class women into higher education, that was already changing opportunities for that group.
At the beginning of the 21st century things are even more amorphous. I suggest that gender divisions are much more lightly etched into material space, social roles more layered, multiple. Conceptually, the older binary oppositions, where women were consistently ‘signed’ inferior to men (and where the ‘commonsense’ design and ordering of physical space was sometimes central to expressing the different ‘locations’ of men and women) have much less purchase; and are increasing crucially challenged by transgender and non-binary movements. Social roles can more fluid and interchangeable, particularly before children are born. Many women are more financially independent, many more people live in different household arrangements. Architects and designers still have normative biases, but architectural or urban design ‘gendering’ is no longer so explicit as it was in design guidance like ‘Spaces in the Home’ (1972) and ‘Housing the Family’ (1974) – eloquently critiqued by Sue Francis in the Making Space book.
But the stereotypes of what constitutes ‘Man’ or Woman’ (that is, not the realities of any particular man or woman but an idealized and artificial social construct) continue to have impacts, intersected with stereotypical assumptions about class, race, age, sexuality, disability etc. Political struggles around cis and transgender identities, #blacklivesmatter and #metoo as well as media debates about wearing a veil, career women, late babies and same sex marriage, all show just how central attempts to name gender and other relationships through a language of proper ‘commonsense’ still are; both in the ‘ordinary’ patterning of everyday social, spatial and material practices, and through aspects of how building and spatial design prioritises (values) particular traits and activities over others. Just as importantly, core economic and social inequalities remain and, are even deepening. In the current moment, it feels vitally important not only to really understand how built space makes concrete normative social relations through being gendered, racialised and made disabling; but also how it can be re-though towards social, material and spatial justice.
Betty Friedan (1963) The Feminine Mystique W. W. Norton
Doris Cole (1973) From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture i Press Inc.
Sheila Rowbotham (1973) Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World Pelican p35
Susana Torre (1977) Women in American Architecture Whitney Library of Design
Dolores Hayden (1981) The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities, MIT Press.
Gerda R. Wekerle (1981) New Space for Women Westview Press
Gwendolyn Wright (1981) Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America. Pantheon
Leonora Davidoff and Catherine Hall (1987) Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 University of Chicago Press
Linda MacDowell (1999) Gender, Identity and Place. Cambridge: Polity.
Doreen Massey (1994), Space, place, and gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Gill Valentine (1995) Mapping desire: Geographies of sexualities Psychology Press (with David Bell)